West Virginia

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.

For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”

Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s.

Thus, it’s important to praise a news feature that includes all the basic facts, when talking about this trend, and then goes the extra mile to include waves of poignant details offering readers a pew-level view of what this decline feels like to the remaining believers.

That brings me to a must-read Washington Post feature that just ran with this headline: “The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

The setting for this story is a dense, mountainous corner of West Virginia, which is home to a wife-and-husband team of pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the story even pauses to explain the term “evangelical” in this context). Linked to that, readers are also told that this particular Lutheran body holds “more-liberal positions on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women.”

How busy is this duo? Here is a crucial summary passage that includes many of the crucial facts:

[The Rev. Jess Felici], 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.

That makes Appalachia much like the rest of the country when it comes to mainline Protestant churches.

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Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

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Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia ...

I won't say the Washington Post's front-page story today on a lawsuit over a Bible elective in a West Virginia public school district is "almost heaven," but it's pretty good.

Excellent, actually.

Three months ago, I highlighted an Associated Press story on the same federal lawsuit at the heart of the Post's report.

In my earlier post, I said:

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.
I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides.
However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers.

After supplying a bit more commentary and explanation, I concluded:

To understand what's really happening in the West Virginia school district — and the constitutionality of it or not — AP or another news organization would need to do much more reporting: Interview students, parents and teachers. Review the curriculum. Talk to church-and-state experts. Study past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on religion in public schools.
Of course, reporting all of the above would require more than 400 words.

Which leads us back to today's Post story, which, by the way, tops 2,000 words.

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Why local media coverage of West Virginia's Bible bill is far from being 'almost heaven'

Why local media coverage of West Virginia's Bible bill is far from being 'almost heaven'

There's faith-related news, apparently, in West Virginia, but the local media there are not paying too much attention.

On Monday, Feb. 20 (don't ask me why the state legislature was meeting on Presidents' Day, but apparently they did), State Delegate Ken Hicks (D-Wayne) introduced a measure to amend the state code with a single sentence: "The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book of West Virginia."

That's, um, news, rather interesting church-state news. Right?

Well, Hicks's measure did grab the attention of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, so that's a start:

"I think a lot of the biblical principles are the same principles that the state was founded on," Hicks said. "The Bible is a book that's been around for thousands of years. A lot of principles from the Bible are what modern-day and contemporary law is based on."
There currently is no official state book for West Virginia.
Hicks said he thought the state could have multiple official books, not limiting it to just the Bible. When asked about concerns as to whether the proposal would indicate an official endorsement of one religion over others by the state, Hicks said he hoped that people who were concerned would contact their legislators to let their feelings be known.

The Herald-Dispatch account -- noting the lawmaker says he is "a practicing Christian" -- quotes Hicks as saying the bill isn't designed to compel Bible reading. Yes, a bit more specificity would have been nice when dealing with his church tradition.

The measure is co-sponsored by seven other delegates, two Democrats and five Republicans. None of the other sponsors are quoted nor are their religious affiliations, if any, disclosed. Talking to the Democrats would have been a nice touch.

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Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

Are Bible classes in public schools constitutional? The answer is complicated

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.

I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides. 

However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers. I'll elaborate below.

First, though, here's the lede:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A kindergartner's mother sued her public school system in West Virginia, saying a 75-year practice of putting kids in Bible classes violates the U.S. and state constitutions.
The woman, identified as "Jane Doe" in the federal lawsuit backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her child will be forced either to take these weekly classes at her Mercer County elementary school or face ostracism as one of the few children who don't.
"This program advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students," the suit said.
The school district said the courses are voluntary electives.

GetReligion readers are, of course, familiar with the agenda of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It's no surprise at all that the organization has an issue with teaching the Bible in public schools.

But does that make the courses unconstitutional? Not necessarily.

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What do Seattle, San Diego and West Virginia have in common? Right now, it's revivals

What do Seattle, San Diego and West Virginia have in common? Right now, it's revivals

Several months ago, a church in Seattle had a weekend revival. Then the meetings from that event carried over into the following week. And the next week after that. By the time they hit the fifth week, the church was getting bigger crowds, the event had its own hashtag (#westcoastrumble) and the nightly meetings were being broadcast online.

Similar revival meetings in San Diego were making this look like a regional phenomenon. By the eighth week, I decided this just might be news and so I started pitching a story about it. Religion News Service was interested and my story ran April 19.

This got me to thinking about revivals, mass meetings and movements, all of which are notoriously hard for a secular newspaper to cover well. Just what does constitute a large religious movement? Crowds? Miraculous healings? The fact that it’s spread to other locales?

Which is why I was interested to hear of a similar revival happening in West Virginia. The religious media, in this case CBN, were the first to arrive on the scene after a mere three weeks. CBN began with:

MINGO COUNTY, W. Va. -- There's a new sound coming forth from the hills of southern West Virginia - a sound many prophets have foretold but haven't heard until now.
For the past three weeks, the large sports complex in the small coal-mining town of Williamson, West Virginia, has been filled to the rafters with people crying out for God

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Ghosts in blue-state — er, red-state — West Virginia?

There’s a lot to digest in the Washington Post’s nearly 4,000-word political road trip to West Virginia, headlined “A blue state’s road to red.” Even at that word count — mammoth for a newspaper — it’s a definite challenge to boil down an entire state, its people and their attitudes and way of life into a single story.

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